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Bryce Dessner - El Chan (Album Review)

Wednesday, 24 April 2019 Written by Helen Payne

Bryce Dessner is a man who knows a lot about music. Widely revered for his role as multi-instrumentalist and composer with the National, on ‘El Chan’ he continues a side odyssey in classical music and transcends the ‘indie rock guitarist’ label. Here, with the help of pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque, and Orchestre de Paris, he has outdone himself by turning in a grand statement with a sense of ease.

If you don’t have 45 minutes to hand, the first 40 seconds of the Piano Concerto alone are enough to communicate everything ‘El Chan’ stands for. A fanfare flourish resonates through an evocative and emotional collection of instrumental music, while the speed and intricacy of the Labèque sisters’ exploration of the keys proves there is, above all, talent and soul in the making of this record.

Dessner et al then fall into a thematic volta, turning from an explosion of colour and vibrancy to a tone of tension with a variation on a four note theme. In true soundtrack tradition, the motif is dotted throughout this first movement, then transcended across two segments with increasing degrees of the dramatic.

This record comes at a time when the National have just announced their eighth studio album, after winning a Grammy and hitting number one in the UK with their most recent, ‘Sleep Well Beast’.

The commonalities between the two projects, although subtle, are most prominent on Haven, the second and most delectable part. Dessner’s unusual approach to instrumentation creates a gorgeous eight minute tangle of guitar arrangements and abstract piano, a minimalist expression of hopeful yet melancholic feelings—similar to those elicited by the National with their poignant lyrics and addictive melodies.

The LP’s final third is where it truly comes into its own, though. The piece is dedicated to Dessner’s friend and colleague Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, with whom he worked on the Revenant soundtrack. ‘El Chan’ was inspired by the landscape of Iñárritu’s native Mexico, and in turn, the legends associated with it. A pool of water in the canyons near San Miguel De Allende is said to be guarded by the record’s namesake, a mythical spirit, and has been a source of folklore and inspiration for centuries.

Dessner chooses to return to an intense and potent piano duet in this seven-part section, utilising the extreme dynamics of the instruments to mimic the harsh yet beautiful landscape, hitting the senses hard. Points of Light plays with ideas of colour and daylight over soft piano, and Four Winds batters the listener with a lively capriccio sequence before smoothing out into a more dainty melody that could fit nicely on the new National album.

‘El Chan’ works, whether you want to look at it as a standalone classical piece, a side project from a prolific rock musician, or as an homage to the Mexican mythology it takes its name from. It’s an eye-opening record that will hook in even the strictest die-hard National nerds.

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